It was bang in the middle of the pandemic and Elfy Scott lived “in a dank house” in Sydney’s inner west with housemates. “We were locked down and having to look at those same four mouldy walls,” she says.
The lease was coming to an end, and Scott, 27, and her partner were planning their next move – to Bondi where rentals were about $600 to $700 a week.
But really, they wondered, what was keeping them in Sydney?
“We made the decision to leave because Sydney had shut down and there would be so few social outlets,” she says. “It was a good time to leave, especially since we weren’t sure what would happen with our jobs.”
For now, Scott is working from home as a podcast producer and presenter for Junkee media.
Scott and her partner made the leap and moved to Austinmer – about 70km south of Sydney – and for $480 a week, got a house with absolute beachfront.
Now, six weeks into her new regional life, Scott is loving the change.
She is getting to know her neighbours and says, “I feel as though being surrounded by nature is so much better for my mental health. In Sydney the quality of the housing is so bad.”
Will a pandemic that thrives in urban density combined with ridiculous house prices in Melbourne and Sydney and a revolution in working from home result in a surge of people moving to Australia’s regions?
Instagram says yes!
This season’s favoured aesthetic on visual-based platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest is #cottagecore: think cute little houses in the country, walks in the woods, collecting flowers and making jam.
But the data in Australia is not backing up the cottagecore trend – yet.
John Daley, the chief executive of the Grattan Institute, says it’s too early to know whether the pandemic and a shift towards working from home will create a population boom in regional areas.
“The housing market is frozen but it’s absolutely inevitable that more people are going to work from home, more oftenm” he says. “People have set themselves up and got a second screen. They have got Zoom and learnt how to use that. Now that we have done it for three months, we can see that it works.”
But more people working from home doesn’t necessarily translate as more people leaving cities.
“There are not that many jobs that are true freelance jobs – your clients are disproportionately in the big cities,” he says.
If many offices move to a hybrid mix of working-from-home and in the office, “the regions that will do well out of this are within striking distance of major cities – because companies will want a presence in the office some of the time”.
Cameron Kusher, head of economic research at REA Group – which includes realestate.com.au – says that although anecdotally he has heard of people wanting to move to the country, “it’s not showing up much in the data in Victoria and New South Wales”.
Searches for regional properties jumped 11% in Victoria for April compared with March and there was a 16% jump in searches in regional NSW for the corresponding period. But this is down on a year ago, with a 2% fall in Victoria and 1%.
Bucking this trend is an overall increase in searches for properties in rural Queensland and Tasmania.
“It’s too early to tell but it’s logical that people will start to look for houses in regional areas,” Kusher says. “However, most businesses will still want people to come into offices a couple of days a week.”
That means that towns up to 90 minutes from the CBD with good connections will be more popular than regions such as Warrnambool in Victoria and Orange in NSW, which are both around three hours from capital cities.
“In Sydney, people will push out to outer areas such as the Blue Mountains and Central Coast. In Victoria, Ballarat, Geelong and Mornington Peninsula could be popular.
“People from Sydney and Melbourne might also start considering Brisbane and Adelaide because they get on a plane pretty quickly to offices in Melbourne and Sydney.”
Rebecca Andrews, 40, of Collingwood, will trial regional living with her boyfriend when overnight stay restrictions lift in Victoria. They have short stays lined up in the Dandenongs, Yarra Valley and Castlemaine – all places within 90 minutes of the Melbourne CBD. If it works, they’ll move out of the city.
Andrews runs a popular events newsletter called The Sprinkler and works as a freelance journalist. She is usually out at several events around Melbourne five or more times a week but the pandemic brought on a major life shift for her.
“Covid has definitely influenced my decision to live in the country,” she says. “Having spent three months in isolation, I’ve been winding down and not feeling the pressure of having to go to social functions and catch up with mates. Since I’ve been at home all the time and slowing down, I’ve found there’s not much need to get energy from huge social things.”
Now she wants to spend more time in nature. “There’s a huge difference between being in a city park and out in the wilderness. You can’t even compare. What’s a city got that I need anymore? I mean I’m 40, I’m not in my 20s – and although I’m still an extrovert, I’m getting really nice benefits from iso.”
In isolation she has transformed her inner-Melbourne house to resemble the nature she’s starting to crave.
“My house is full of plants, it’s like a nursery.”
For Andrews and her boyfriend, the “pandemic was a circuit breaker. We are using the next few months as a trial in various country towns to see what will work best.”
As Andrew’s boyfriend still works in the city, any move will have to be commutable.
Daley says one of the common problems with relocation is that it has to work for everyone in the household.
“Problems that most households face is that they need to solve two people’s employment and that’s why we have seen much faster growth in major cities than regional centres.”
The bulk of households with two people working are more likely to move to the more convenient outer suburbs than a country town, he says.
Daley isn’t convinced that regional areas will see a big boost post-pandemic, due in part to migration growth, which is currently negative.
Overall , he says, “if regions even held their share of population, they are doing better than they are doing for a long time”.
Those who do move will do so out of financial distress: the unemployed or under-employed who cannot afford to live in a big city.
“The one thing that may mitigate this [stagnation in regional areas] is unemployment. People live in regions because money goes further. We may see these people either staying in regions – or perhaps people will move from city to regions because they have less money to spend on rent. And when the economy comes back, they move back to the cities.”
So is #cottagecore largely an online fantasy? Daley thinks it’s a normal reaction to an old problem.
“In every plague in human history, the impetus was to escape to the country where there’s lots of space,” he says.
Ultimately while some people will be tempted by country life, the numbers will be small “compared to population growth in Melbourne, which has been huge”.
Instead, “we are seeing the resurgence of villages of Melbourne – suburban hubs have come back pretty quickly”.
As people have worked from home over these past few months, they have developed a loyalty to their village, including local cafes and parks, Daley says.
“If anything, links between people and the CBD have become much weaker and the links between people and their local areas are stronger.”
Kusher, who lives in an apartment with his partner and small child, predicts there will be a move instead away from inner city apartments and towards townhouses with a bit of space and a backyard.
In all this uncertainty, it’s not surprising to see people having a bet both ways.